Special Report: Digital

Despite growing up in the digital space, Eric Bader never experienced the typical dot-com-era roller-coaster ride.

“I did not explode or implode at any point,” he quips.

Sure, Bader, MediaVest’s senior vp, director of digital connections and this year’s Media All-Star in the digital category, has done the smaller, online-focused agency thing (Eagle River Interactive) and the startup thing (cable network CSTV). But his career has been noteworthy for its stability, as evidenced by his tenure as senior partner, executive director of interactive strategy at OgilvyInteractive during the industry’s most volatile years. That seven-year run may as well have been an eternity in a business where most résumés run at least two pages.

Bader’s only been a pure media guy since April of last year, when he joined MediaVest. In that short time, he’s exhibited outstanding leadership skills, vision and an exemplary day-to-day work ethic, say his peers and colleagues.

“He’s a very impressive guy,” says Michael Dubin, managing director of agency development at Yahoo, who’s worked with Bader since his Ogilvy days. “Eric’s a strategic thinker who’s always understood the value of the Internet,” Dubin says. “He’s always been kind of ahead of people in thinking about interactive.”

That big-picture thinking has served Bader well at Media-Vest, which had needed someone to seed Web thinking throughout the organization. “Digital is core to everything we do at the company,” says Bill Tucker, MediaVest’s CEO. “Eric had embraced that. He’s helped expand our leadership and galvanize the talent.”

Tucker said that since Bader came aboard last year, the company’s digital-media team has swelled from roughly 40 to more than 80 employees. Bader is credited with helping launch the agency’s Los Angeles-based digital office and a stand-alone search-advertising practice, while also instituting digital training throughout the company.

When Bader left CSTV in 2005, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do next, but was drawn to the digital side of the agency world. “I looked at some startups,” he says. “I didn’t see any ideas that got me charged up. MediaVest solved it for me. They had a progressive point of view, one with digital at the center.”

The boss’ praise notwithstanding, Bader downplays his early impact at MediaVest, maintaining that the agency was ready to roll on digital when he arrived, despite its deep roots in traditional media planning.

“They had already proven things to clients,” he says. “I didn’t have to push too hard.” Those clients included some very traditional brands, including consumer packaged-goods giants not exactly known as big digital spenders—among them, Coca-Cola, Kraft and Procter & Gamble.

Bader says CPG accounts like P&G have been the most challenging—and the most rewarding. “CPG is not one of the categories that is super-obvious on the Web,” he said. “For direct brands, it’s incumbent upon them to use the Web; for P&G, not so much. But consumers will tell you that those brands bring value to their lives”—and that value, he urges, can be tapped online.

Matt Genova, group leader, multimedia sales for ESPN customer marketing and sales, says Bader succeeded in executing successful online campaigns for clients like CPG marketers because he’s embraced teaming up with his traditional-media counterparts—not always the case with digital-media types.

“Compared to most agencies, he has built a team that fosters integration,” Genova explains. “He’s not one of those silo guys. His people are always able to discuss digital as part of a larger conversation. He’s fully empowered them.”

Says Bader, “I’m very proud of the way we’ve integrated. We don’t need to really talk about it anymore.”

Indeed, MediaVest’s digital group is respected by sales execs for its mature, well-organized approach to media planning. That doesn’t mean they aren’t looking to push the envelope. Genova recalls working with Bader’s group on a highly integrated campaign for Coke Zero.

“They are very professional, but they really challenged us to exploit the relationship that ESPN has with clients,” Genova says. “They forced us out of our comfort zone.”

Bader believes his work at OgilvyInteractive—where, during the late ’90s, he helped clients like IBM and American Express figure out what role digital media would play in their organizations—helped him to think beyond just media.

“[Those companies] were answering fundamental questions at the time: What does the Internet mean to our company? That meant everything from building a corporate Web site to PR to advertising,” says Bader.

Those who work closely with Bader say he’s also been a leader in the nascent area of mobile. Bader is a regular panelist at mobile-industry conferences and helps run P&G’s mobile lab. But when it comes to mobile, his most important asset may be that he’s a realist in a hype-filled space.

“He’s one of those people who’s helped us think about mobile from a strategic/objective perspective rather than just technology,” says Laura Marriott, president of the Mobile Marketing Association. “He brings us down to the basics by using real-world talk.”

Real-world talk is something Bader would like to see happen between brands and their customers. That, in his mind, is where digital’s true potential lies, and what gets him most excited about the space. “The stuff I’m most interested in is more and more personalized customer experiences,” he says. “I want to see people have relationships with brands…where they choose to engage.”

Bader reflects on his All-Star status, and wonders what might have been had he and media not crossed paths and he’d entered a field where he might have “exploded or imploded.”

“I had no chance to play third base for the Mets or be a rock star,” he muses. “I’m spending the rest of my life making up for those failures.”